Why Osama bin Laden‘s death is making Chinese leaders nervous.
BY JOHN LEE | MAY 6, 2011
In Thursday’s edition of China’s Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper, the lead editorial was headlined, “After Bin Laden, will China become US’s foe?” Hoping that economic integration would defuse “right-wing paranoia” about China in the United States, the editorial nevertheless concluded: “The rise of China is certain to cause friction” in America. On Friday, the paper led with an editorial that referenced an interview I had given the Global Times in late April to admit that “China could be the loneliest rising power in world history.”
Of course, editorials in state-owned newspapers do not always mirror the Communist Party’s thinking or policies. But in this case, these two editorials remind us of two related points about Beijing’s worldview. First, China respects and even fears the United States more than the vast majority of Americans probably realize. And second, China’s sense of isolation is not an act but acute and real — and Osama bin Laden’s death will only accelerate America’s reengagement with its Asian allies and partners at China’s expense.
When Washington shifted its focus toward terrorism and the Middle East after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Beijing experienced genuine relief. As China’s leaders and strategists came to believe, an America distracted by two wars and a weak economy presented a priceless window of opportunity for China to extend its influence in Asia and beyond. But Beijing realizes that Washington’s strategic attention will eventually turn eastwards, and the death of bin Laden is one small but significant step in hastening the arrival of that day. As one prominent Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) analyst put it to me recently, the American “spearhead will soon be pointed at Beijing.”
China’s focus on America is obsessive and omnipresent among its leaders and strategists. In a study of 100 recent articles by leading academics at CASS, comprising the network of official state-backed think-tanks and institutes throughout the country, I found that about four in every five were about the United States — whether it was seeking to understand the American system and political values, or describing how to limit, circumvent, bind, or otherwise reduce American power and influence. Of these themes, several emerged that help better understand the thinking behind editorials like the one in the Global Times.
One is that Beijing views international politics in broadly neorealist terms. Chinese strategists believe the distribution of power in the world today will determine tomorrow’s conflicts. China has long seen building competition between itself and America in particular as the inevitable and defining big-picture strategic play. In Beijing’s thinking, tension can be managed, but never resolved, between the established power and the emerging one. Tension is a structural inevitability.
But Chinese experts also view America as a unique superpower that relentlessly seeks not only to build and maintain its power, but also to spread its democratic values. This is of grave concern to the authoritarian Chinese leaders, because they believe that America will have difficulty accepting a greater leadership role for Beijing so long as Communist Party remains exclusively in power. Senator John McCain‘s “League of Democracies” might never become a formal reality, but Beijing believes that it already exists, at least in Asia, through democracies such as India, Japan, and South Korea.
Moreover, Beijing fears the American democratic process. While Americans view democracy as an advantage since it can offer United States an institutional and bloodless process for leadership and policy renewal, China views American democracy as a source of irrationality and unpredictability. Many in Beijing, pointing to President George W. Bush’s rapid decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, believe a new administration might actually increase the chances of uncomfortable shifts in policy that will lead Washington to suddenly focus its competitive and hostile gaze to the east.
Some of Beijing’s strategists now even argue that the United States has three advantages over China that will help preserve American strategic primacy in Asia.
First, the United States has built an order based not just on American power but also democratic community. It has not escaped Beijing that few countries in East and Southeast Asia fear India’s democratic rise. Whereas India’s ascent is seen as natural, predictable, and welcomed, almost every country in Asia is trying to benefit from China’s economic success while strategically hedging against Chinese military power by moving even closer to the United States. (Witness the recent speech by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to Congress in which she reaffirmed the alliance with America as the bedrock of Canberra’s security strategy, or Singapore’s leader Lee Hsien Loong urging America to remain engaged in Asia.)
Second, unlike China, America does not have land and territorial disputes with other Asian states. For example, China still claims around 80 percent of the South China Sea as its “historic waters” and is in an ongoing dispute with India over the eastern-most Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. In this sense, China’s rise is inherently disruptive since a more powerful China is likely to demand a resolution to these issues that is in Beijing’s favor.
Third, the United States is not a resident power in that it is not geographically in Asia. China now realizes that this simple fact, once seen as a handicap, instead presents America with a unique advantage. To maintain its military bases in the region and thus remain the pre-eminent strategic power in Asia, the United States requires other key states and regional groupings to acquiesce to its security role and relationships. There is broad-based regional approval of U.S. alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, as well as with partners such as India, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. This interdependent relationship means that America is not so powerful that it can easily ignore the wishes of Asian states.
In contrast, if China were in the dominant strategic position, its pre-eminence would be much harder to challenge or shift. Beijing would not need the same level of regional acquiescence. As a resident power, China would not need the “approval” of other Asian states to maintain its military footholds. As the largest Asian power, it would be easier to dominate regional institutions without an American presence — yet one more reason why America is trusted to provide the public and security goods in Asian sea lanes while China is not.
All this is why, instead of taking full advantage of America’s terrorism obsession, Beijing has watched resentfully as the United States has built a hierarchical democratic order in which Asian states willingly aid in preserving American pre-eminence. In such an order, China remains a strategic loner in Asia, with Myanmar and North Korea as its only true friends.
China is well aware of its relative vulnerabilities. Rather than lament the irretrievable loss of its better days, America should learn to better appreciate its relative strengths.